What the H Street Playhouse’s Relocation Really Means to Anacostia’s Future

Authors’s Note: in the interest of transparency and full disclosure, as the reader, you should know that I [Phil Hutinet] am both the Editor-in-Chief of East City Art as well as the Chief Operating Officer of ARCH Development Corporation.  I am directly responsible for spearheading the effort to bring the H Street Playhouse to Anacostia.  The facts of this article are primary and the opinions are entirely my own.

H Street Playhouse perming on June 16 at the closing of LUMEN8Anacostia. The “pop-up theater” took place at 2020 Shannon PL SE, the H Street Playhouse’s new Anacostia location. Photo Copyright East City Art

Following today’s official announcement by ARCH Development Corporation that the H Street Playhouse will relocate to Anacostia, many discussions will ensue regarding the impact the theater’s move will have on the surrounding neighborhood.

A little background on the events that precipitated this move should shed some light on the discussion.

In January 2012, the owners of the 1365 H Street NE decided to significantly increase the rent on their property .  The rent increase made operating the H Street Playhouse at 1365 H Street NE cost prohibitive and, as a result, Adele Robey, the owner of the theater, decided not to renew her lease.

Upon hearing that the H Street Playhouse would not renew their lease at 1365 H Street NE, ARCH Development Corporation (ADC) contacted the theater to propose relocating them to Historic Anacostia.   As East City Art readers already know, ADC has pioneered the launch of several art venues in Historic Anacostia including Vivid Solutions DC digital print lab, three galleries (Honfleur, Vivid Solutions and Blank Space), an artist residency program and an annual festival called LUMEN8Anacostia.

From ADC’s perspective, relocating the H Street Playhouse to Historic Anacostia will add a performing arts center thereby increasing the neighborhood’s list of growing cultural attractions.

As part of ADC’s commitment to relocating the H Street Playhouse to Historic Anacostia, the nonprofit worked with Curtis Management/Four Points LLC to secure space, negotiate the lease and provide initial start-up capital to fund lighting and sound equipment for the H Street Playhouse.  PGN Architects provided pro-bono architectural consultative services to the H Street Playhouse which helped the theater make the final decision to lease the space at 2020 Shannon Place SE.  The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) provided a grant, requested by ADC, to finance the build-out costs of the theater.  ADC will manage the DCCAH grant throughout its life-cycle.

Relocating the H Street Playhouse to 2020 Shannon Street SE warehouse was a natural fit. The H Street Playhouse’s presence in Historic Anacostia will provide a world-class black-box theater for both local and regional patrons.   It will also provide a stage for local performers who live and work East of the River including Southeast Trinity, Verbal Gymnastics, the Serenity Players and Melvin Deal and the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers (just to name a few).

And herein lies the importance of the H Street Playhouse’s relocation.  While many will bring up the specter of “gentrification”, a political charged word that is never properly defined and carries a host of pejorative connotations, the theater’s presence is only one of many factors, like the completion of the new 11th Street bridge, that that will contribute to transforming Historic Anacostia, a process that is already well underway.  Ultimately, the theater will offer a much needed and sought after destination for residents seeking a cultural attraction within walking distance or a short drive from their homes while providing an opportunity to showcase the rich, autochthonous cultural heritage that exists East of the River which is often ignored by other parts of the city and the region.

Naturally, the theater’s presence in Anacostia will lead to the opening of new restaurants along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope RD SE as investors will see the value of attracting hungry theater goers before and after shows.  The rapid and steady growth of new places to eat on H Street NE began when the H Street Playhouse opened its doors in 2002 and set off a chain reaction of real-estate development.

On April 14, 2012, ADC’s LUMEN8Anacostia festival hosted the “Party Behind the Big Chair” at 2020 Shannon SE at the future site of the H Street Playhouse.  The variety show was produced entirely by East of the River performance groups.  The performances were extremely well attended by a local crowd.

So clearly, if the success of the “Party Behind the Big Chair” can be measured by local participation and attendance, then there is a real need for a venue like the H Street Playhouse to relocate to Anacostia. The owners of the H Street Playhouse have extensive experience working with East of the River groups like Verbal Gymnastics who, along with Southeast Trinity,  realized the production of “The Party Behind Chair.”

The H Street Playhouse’s relocation to Anacostia is an opportunity for the community to participate in theater and the performing arts without having to cross a bridge, a wish expressed by the participants of the June 9, 2012 Ward 8 summit.    It also means that people from around the region can finally experience Anacostia’s wealth of culture and creative talent.

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